At three o’clock Nora started getting more flustered than ever. She’d spent the day feeling like her heart was alternating between imploding and relocating to her belly every time she recalled that Ryan was going to join her in Oleander Gardens that afternoon, which was approximately every eighteen seconds. School got out at 3:15, so when she looked at her phone and saw that it was nearly three o’clock the countdown began.
At 3:05 she wiped down the card tables and chairs, and considered whether she should take off her ‘uniform’ of a smock and rubber gloves, or greet him with them on. At 3:10 she vacuumed the games room and pictured the various scenarios in which she met Ryan and showed him in. Would she go right out to the street to meet him, vrr vrr? Would she greet him in the parking lot, vrr vrr? Would she helpfully take his skateboard from him or maintain an air of aloofness and let him carry it in himself, vrr vrr? Would she play it totally cool and wait for him to come buzz the main door, sitting in reception on her phone when Nicole buzzed him in, vrr vrr? It all depended on what kind of impression she wanted to make. Plus she was setting a precedent. However things went between them, whether he became the love of her life or just a guy, or, worst possible scenario, they had a brief but passionate love affair that ended in the flames of a lovers’ quarrel, he had to spend 40 hours at Oleander Gardens. That meant 40 hours minimum they would be together, and her first greeting of him had to set the stage for the remaining 40 hours.
At 3:25 she wrestled the vacuum back into the cleaning closet and thought about what she would say to him when he arrived, and what he would say to her, and how she would introduce him to Nicole. At 3:30 she deserted the cleaning cart and checked her appearance in the staff washroom beside the back door of the kitchen. By now he would have left his last class of the day, sorted his homework at his locker (if he was the kind of person who used his locker), and skateboarded away from school. If he skateboarded directly here, or even took the bus, he could be arriving any moment. She washed the scent of latex from sweating in the gloves all afternoon from her hands and pulled a brush through her hair. She still looked like a high-school drop out working for minimum wage as a cleaner. Not good enough to impress anyone.
He’d be here any minute. Sighing with the low spirits of a forever-alone basement dwelling video game nut, she pushed the stupid cleaning cart, her only defining accessory, back down the corridor to continue her job. No buzz from her phone yet, and it was 3:37. At least if he arrived at 4:00, his first hour would be finishing at the same time that she got off work. Nora’s heart left its temporary position of the pit of her stomach and leapt enthusiastically back into her throat for the thousandth time that day. So what would happen then? Would they walk to the bus stop together, he holding his skateboard? Would they travel on the bus together? Did he prefer the back seat, or a front seat, or the middle? Or did he stand? Would they have enough to talk about to keep a conversation going for the entire ten minute bus ride? What if they missed the 5:07 bus and had to wait twenty minutes for the next bus? That was thirty minutes of conversation! And then there was the walk home! How many awkward silences would be endured before he decided she was majorly lame and not worth any more iotas of his time?
WHAT DID IT MATTER? Why couldn’t she get her mind off Ryan Calder? As if his volunteership at Oleander Gardens was going to lead to any kind of romance or even friendship between them. He was a cute sk8r boi who probably had a girlfriend or seven already, and she was a nothing nobody, not even smart enough to finish high-school and get a diploma, cleaning up after old people for minimum wage.
She stood outside the salon for a moment. Randy was in there with Mrs. Tillynaught. Randy was really a Randy of all trades; as well as mortician and painting teacher, Randy was the resident beauty technician. He and Mrs. Tillynaught, her head covered in curlers and face covered in mud, both smiled and waved with a few little finger wiggles at Nora.
She preferred to clean the salon when it was empty, but according to the schedule posted on a whiteboard on the door, this was a busy Thursday afternoon so she might as well clean around Mrs. Tillynaught. She parked the cart and donned the gloves and, spray bottle in one hand and wad of blue disposable towel in the other, dragged herself into the salon and began squirting the free mirror.
Randy was seated on the other chair waiting for Mrs. Tillynaught to dry and set. He swiveled in Nora’s direction.
“What’s up, Nora?”
“Bullshit.” Randy turned toward Mrs. Tillynaught. “Sorry, Linda. Pardon my French.” Back to Nora. “You have a cloud surrounding your cute little head.”
“Cute? LOL,” said Nora. She enjoyed speaking in Tumblr abbreviations because she found it amusing. Probably everyone around her thought she was just a typical teenager and really meant it when she said that kind of thing, but it made her giggle inside so she did it. Screw what other people thought.
“Nah, you’re a cutie patootie. And I’m not just saying that because you’re the only person under the age of forty in this place. Present company excluded, of course,” he added, throwing a glance at Mrs. Tillynaught, who smiled back at him. “Uh-uh, Linda. None of that. You’re drying; keep still.”
“Well, you old people might think I’m cute, but I can assure you that a certain Cute Guy who happens to be coming here right now does not.”
Randy faux-gasped in horror at being called old, putting his hand on his chest as if he was having a heart attack. Then he said, “But no. A boy, coming here to date our Nora?”
“Not a date, just a stupid volunteer thing he has to do for school, and like an idiot I got him to come here for it.”
“That was actually genius, Nora. Not only are you providing your little boyfriend with a valuable volunteer experience, you’re also providing someone to help out around here for free, thereby reducing OUR workload, AND providing the residents with someone else to hang out with. Fresh meat, so to speak.”
“All good points, except for the boyfriend thing.”
“Why not? He’ll be here every day or whatever volunteering. I’m sure the seeds of romance will blossom at some point.”
“Why not? Because, this.” Nora pointed at her face. “And this.” Nora lifted some of her drab, already tangled hair and let it drop down onto her shoulders where it lived.
“Well, I think we can do something about all of that! What do you think, Linda?”
Without smiling, Mrs. Tillynaught nodded vigorously.
Nora looked at her phone. It was 3:46. “Not possible. He’ll be here any second.”
“Not impossible, either.” Randy sprang into action, hearing the call of a challenge and accepting it. “Nora, sit here.” He leapt out of the chair and swung it in Nora’s direction. “Linda, run and get Evelyn. She’ll create a distraction while we work on Nora here. But no talking, Linda. We don’t want you to crack.”
Smiling inside but trying to maintain an aloofness befitting her carefully developed aura of giving zero fucks, Nora flopped into the hairdressing chair. “Good luck. You’ll need it.”
Randy examined her for a few seconds, then said, “Nonsense. You’re adorable. We just need to give your hair some life, bring out your features a little. Freshen you up after your long day behind that tunic.” He tilted her face back with one hand and spritzed some kind of scented water on it with the other. “Keep still.”